MacKenzie Smith talks food, fans, and the feta dish that made her famous
Words by Christine Van Dyk
When the world ground to a halt last spring, panicked shut-ins charged for the toilet paper and diet soda aisles as if they were rushing for the last lifeboat on the Titanic. Desperate shoppers sprinted for the last remaining boxes of pasta on their way past near-empty shelves. Not surprisingly, sales of pasta began to soar, and a simple recipe made its way into the zeitgeist.
Baked Feta Pasta is the easy-to-make comfort food that had Tik Tok racking up views like a Las Vegas slot machine. First shared by a Finnish food blogger, the now-trending recipe made its way stateside when chef, influencer, and Food Network contender MacKenzie Smith shared her take on the dish. The #bakedfetapasta hashtag has since topped 125 million views.
“I posted my version during quarantine, and it blew up,” Smith said. “People were leaning into food more than ever, some cooking for the first time.”
Despite the popularity of her Baked Feta Pasta, this wasn’t the first time a creation of Smith’s went viral. Seven years ago, she posted a recipe for a grilled cheese sandwich she made in a toaster. In the end, it inspired more memes of failed attempts than a genuine Tuesday night dinner option, but her popularity was growing.
Then, in 2016, Smith received a message from a talent scout for “Guy’s Grocery Games,” a Food Network series starring celebrity chef Guy Fieri.
After a lengthy e-mail questionnaire, six interviews, and a kitchen test, Smith felt confident about her chances. She returned home and waited. Months passed and nothing happened until, out of the blue, the phone finally rang. Her episode would be filming the following week.
“Being on a reality food show was nothing like I expected,” she said. “I went in with an idea of what I’d like to cook and what to expect based on other episodes I’d watched, but it didn’t work that way. It’s all truly on the fly.”
The show, on which Smith has appeared four times, features chefs competing in an on-set grocery store for ingredients they use to create recipes. According to Smith, the contestants are allowed a single, timed walk-through of the aisles and prep space with no time to study the shelves or devise a plan of attack.
“When the countdown began, I just blacked out,” she said. “I was a ball of nervous energy. It was like jazz—all over the place, and yet it seemed to make sense.”
Culinary entertainment has become big business, largely due to the rising popularity of celebrity chefs such as Fieri. Food Network enjoys a viewership of one million nightly viewers, five million Twitter followers, and more than 23 million likes on Facebook.
So, why this growing hunger for food content? Is the attraction for MICHELIN-starred chefs or for accessible fare? All indicators point to both.
Smith began her own culinary journey in grad school when extra money was spent on partying, not on high-end ingredients.
“I lived in New York where it was easy to make inspiring meals with fancy products,” she said, “but I wanted to create food everyone could enjoy. I was living off grilled cheese sandwiches, and I thought, ‘If I can make these delicious and affordable, so can anyone.’”
Her food blog began to take shape on subway rides where she honed recipes, defined her brand, and learned the ins and outs of the Internet.
“I literally Googled ‘what is a blog,’” she laughs. “I watched hundreds of YouTube videos on how to build a website and how to start a blog. The only person who followed me for the first three months was my mom.”
Today, Smith has 200,000 social media followers and 600,000 readers per month, and she’s learned a thing or two about gathering a following.
“In those days, I was this young, single girl in New York journaling about what she ate,” she says. “I wrote for myself and told my story.”
Now she writes to be found.
“If I don’t write more than 1,000 words in a blog, I’m not at the top of the rankings,” she explains. “If I don’t use the right key words for Search Engine Optimization, you’ll never find me.”
More and more people are finding their way onto Smith’s social handles and online blog: “Grilled Cheese Social.” These days, her lifestyle brand is about a peek into her life in a small Florida beach town as it is about her food. From her surfer husband to their duo of dachshunds and a baby so cute you almost squeal, the influencer is proving her real-life content has never been more binge-worthy.
So, while the Baked Feta Pasta recipe known as “Tik Tok Pasta” is popping up everywhere from The New York Times to HuffPost, Smith is proof it takes more than a one-hit-wonder to stay on top. Delicious flavors, accessible ingredients, and a cult of personality make up a mixture that goes beyond what’s on the plate.